Multiple Sclerosis: Latest Evidence and Treatments

This article offers a concise summary of employer considerations and new evidence related to multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as a discussion of its impact and what employers can do to support patients and caregivers.


November 03, 2023

This article provides a summary of employer considerations, recommendations and new evidence related to multiple sclerosis (MS). It also includes a discussion of its impact on employer-sponsored health plans and what employers can do to help support patients with MS and their caregivers.

Note: A Glossary of Terms can be found at the end of this article.

What’s New

  • Globally, MS has become more prevalent in the past decade, with an estimated 2.9 million individuals living with the condition in 2023.1 Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with MS as men, and the median age for diagnosis is 32 years of age.2
  • Previous research indicated that MS had a very different prevalence among different races and ethnicities, but recent findings indicate that this gap is narrowing. Black individuals are being diagnosed with MS at a rate of 225.8 per 100,000 persons, while White people were diagnosed at 237.7 per 100,000. Black Americans, however, have more severe disability when first diagnosed  compared to other racial and ethnic groups.3,4
  • The first biosimilar drug for the treatment of relapsing forms of MS was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2023.5 With the addition of this new medication, employers can work with their partners to evaluate the new therapeutic options and adjust their formularies where applicable.

What Is MS?

MS is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the central nervous system and may cause significant disability over time, even with treatment.6 Although symptoms and the course of the disease vary by patient, common symptoms include fatigue, loss of balance, problems with walking, vision loss and cognitive impairment.6 While in the past MS has been believed to primarily affect White people, recent research suggests that the prevalence of MS in Black populations is widely undocumented and may be similar to the prevalence of MS in White individuals.3 Moreover, women are three times as likely to be affected than men, and there is no known cause or cure—though some studies attribute an increased risk of developing MS to low vitamin D levels and smoking.7

Impact of MS on Employer-Sponsored Health Plans

The high costs of medications, as well as the fact that treatment is ongoing, make MS a particularly expensive condition for many employers. Although there are no treatments that can reverse the neurodegenerative effects of MS, multiple treatments are available for managing the disease and its related symptoms and slowing the progression.

Considering these factors, employers can expect to see costs consistently rise year after year for affected members within the covered population. Further, innovations in pharmacological treatments have resulted in more patients able to live with MS and be active in the workforce, this combination of drug innovation and MS patients living longer with the disease have been primary drivers of increasing costs in the past decade. New disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) are being approved for both relapsing and secondary and primary progressive forms of MS, providing treatment options for patients for whom previously only off-label therapies were available.

Learn more about the drug development pipeline for MS here:

The first treatment for primary progressive MS (PPMS) was approved by the FDA in March 20178

An oral tablet was approved to treat secondary progressive MS (SPMS).

The FDA approved another DMT,  which in research trials demonstrated a greater reduction in annualized relapse rates (ARR) in people with highly active forms of MS.9

The FDA approved the first biosimilar drug  for the treatment of relapsing forms of MS.5

For more information about biosimilars, check out the Business Group resource, Biosimilars: Reviving the Conversation Amid Shifting Market Tides .

Major Cost Driver

Over the past 20 years, the cost of MS treatment has risen at a rate five to seven times higher than that of prescription drugs overall.10 It is hypothesized that about 2.9 million people live with MS around the world. For the nearly 1 million individuals estimated to be living with MS in the U.S., its total economic burden is projected to be $85.4 billion, and almost $12 billion of that total comes from the indirect costs of presenteeism and absenteeism (Figure 1).1,11 Worldwide, the MS market for DMTs is estimated to be about $30 billion a year by 2030—a steady increase from 2019 estimates of roughly $19 billion.12

Direct medical costs, indirect medical costs, and non-medical costs total $85.4 billion 
Figure 1: 2021 Report: Total Economic Burden of MS in the U.S.

Source: National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Economic Burden of Multiple Sclerosis: Final Report.

Since MS progresses over time, the economic disease burden is concentrated among individuals who are most severely afflicted.13Disease severity also plays a role in influencing various components of spend: According to one systematic literature review, drugs were the primary cost driver for patients with low severity MS, while productivity losses (i.e., absenteeism, early retirement, premature death, etc.) was the main cost component for individuals with higher disease severity.14

Productivity and Workforce Reduction

Since the median age for onset and symptom presentation is 32 years, MS is considered a ”prime-of-life” disease. Common symptoms like fatigue, vision loss, chronic pain, loss of bladder control and cognitive impairment can restrict the ability of people living with MS to function in the workplace. Many people living with MS leave the workforce due to the inability to cope with the stress and physical or mental demands of their jobs.15 In fact, in 2019, the estimated economic burden of MS due to early retirement was almost $1 billion in the U.S. Furthermore, about 30% of working-age adults living with MS in the U.S. rely on Social Security Disability Insurance.16 An estimated 70% of individuals living with MS leave their jobs within 10 years of diagnosis.17

External factors that prevented people with MS from staying in employment. Unpredictable workload (34%) Lack of time off when needed (24%) Lack of support from employer/colleagues (24%) Own attitude to work (23%) Environment too warm / cold (19%)Poor access to transport / parking (19%) Discrimination by employer/colleagues (16%) Inaccesible bathroom at work (15%) Lack of elevator (7%) Lack of family support (7%) Limited/no help with childcare (4%) 
Figure 2: Barriers to Working Among People with MS

Source: MS International Federation’s Global MS Employment Report 2016.

The top symptom-related factors reported that prevent people with MS from staying  employed were fatigue (62%), followed by difficulty moving (51%), weakness (40%), cognitive impairments (36%) and general MS worsening (33%) —underscoring the importance of symptom management (Figure 2).17 Implementing adequate accommodations (e.g., flexible work schedule, allotted time for rest, etc.) can support symptom management in the workplace,  enabling those living with MS to remain in the workforce longer (Figure 3).17

In addition, employees who serve as caregivers for family members living with MS experience fear, fatigue, anxiety, grief, anger and exhaustion as they cope with taking care of a loved one with a serious illness.18 Many families affected by MS face financial hardships, increasing stress and potential feelings of helplessness. These stress factors can have a significant impact on productivity and contribute to the onset of various health conditions, including high blood pressure, insomnia and depression.

Factors that would enable people with MS to stay in work. Flexible working hours (37%) Rest during work breaks (33%) Better awareness of MS among colleagues (27%) Places to rest (27%) Supportive employer/ colleagues (24%) Routine/predictable workload (22%) Seated work (20%) Assistance with work (18%) Adequate temperature (18%) 
Figure 3: Factors Enabling People Living with MS to Stay Employed

Source: MS International Federation’s Global MS Employment Report 2016.

The Treatment Landscape for MS

A neurologist should determine the appropriate treatment for MS, but effective disease management requires an integrated care team. Treatments seek to address one or more of the following goals:

  • Slow the progress of the disease;
  • Treat symptom flare-ups;
  • Manage ongoing symptoms;
  • Promote function through rehabilitation; and
  • Address mental health issues that often accompany an MS diagnosis.19

The Role of Imaging and Diagnostic Testing in MS Management

There are specific issues discussed below, related to interpreting test results and making accurate diagnoses.

Diagnosis: MS is a complex disease to diagnose. As such, there is an important balancing act between diagnosing patients with MS swiftly while simultaneously ensuring that test results are accurate. Because there is no single diagnostic test for MS, clinicians rely on the presentation of symptoms, clinical examinations, MRIs and spinal taps to make their diagnosis. As prompt initiation of treatment is usually beneficial to the patient, there is pressure to make MS diagnoses as early as possible, increasing the risk of overinterpretation of test results and the possibility of misdiagnoses or incorrect initial treatment.

Frequency of testing: Clinicians typically use imaging tests to monitor inflammatory activity in the early stages of the disease, particularly lesions in the brain that drive many of the complications associated with MS. Clinicians may recommend imaging at least annually, along with close follow-up for people with relapsing forms of MS who are not on a DMT, have not had relapses in the preceding 2 years and do not have active new lesion activity as seen on recent MRI scans .20 However, in progressive forms of the disease , functional decline associated with the neurodegenerative component of MS is not easily detected by MRIs or other imaging techniques, thereby complicating the development of effective treatment strategies.

The Role of Pharmaceuticals in MS Management

DMTs are specialty pharmaceuticals that are the primary treatments for MS. Designed to prevent and/or delay relapses, these drugs tend to be very expensive, with potentially severe side effects. DMTs have a high cost since treatment typically requires specialized therapeutic administration and close monitoring, which includes regular clinic visits as well as imaging and laboratory testing. DMTs can be offered as soon as an MS diagnosis is made and confirmed. It is unclear which treatments will work for each patient, so switching treatments early on after diagnosis is common.21 DMTs can be administered orally, via self-injection into the skin or muscle or by infusion. Analyses of DMT efficacy suggest that the treatments most often successful in slowing disease progression also have the highest risk of severe side effects (like infection, difficulty breathing and retinal swelling) and can be more expensive.22

While the majority of DMTs are available only for the treatment of relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), therapies aimed at the treatment of the more progressive forms of MS – primary progressive MS (PPMS) and secondary progressive MS (SPMS) – have begun entering the market. Most recently, the FDA approved the first biosimilar to treat both RRMS and SPMS.5 The FDA includes those who continue to experience periods of relapses and remissions in its definitions of both RRMS and PPMS to ensure that all patients have access to treatment, as patients with the latter forms would otherwise be left without FDA-approved treatment options.23

Several non-specialty drugs have also entered the market specifically to address MS symptoms, such as difficulty walking and movement of the upper and lower extremities. For example, generic versions of Ampyra, used to improve walking in adults with MS, are available.24 These drugs are used only for symptom relief and supportive care. They do not modify the course of the disease.

Different types of physical therapy, such as twice daily stretching therapy, are typically part of the treatment regimen for MS patients.  In addition, virtual PT solutions can play a significant role in the ongoing care for MS patients.

For more information about specialty drugs and value-based purchasing, check out the Business Group resource, Specialty Drugs and Gene Therapies: Driving Value and Mitigating Volatility .

Traditional Therapies

Other common treatments and procedures related to MS that employers can consider covering include:

  • Brain and spine imaging tests to assess the progression of the disease for those who have recently had flare-ups;
  • Administration of clinically infused DMTs;
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, depression and stress associated with MS;
  • Prescription-strength painkillers for common symptoms;
  • Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors are a type of drug that targets specific enzymes to adjust the immune response and reduce inflammation;
  • Stem cell transplantation of patient or donor stem cells are used to suppress the immune system/effectively reduce the severity of MS symptoms; and
  • Occupational and physical therapy to rehabilitate lost function, which may include the need for durable medical devices.

Alternative Therapies

There are several alternative therapies, which are listed below. However, the evidence is mixed for each of these treatments.25

  • Fish oil;
  • Acupuncture;
  • Bee sting treatment;
  • Yoga;
  • Magnetic therapy;
  • Medical marijuana, which may be used to relieve pain, correct an overactive bladder and address muscle stiffness if other treatments have been ineffective26; and
  • Dietary changes to improve cognition and boost energy.

Recommendations for Employer Consideration

  • Leverage your data: Review your claims data to assess the number of individuals and caregivers affected by MS. Then evaluate program utilization to ensure that this population is accessing support from vendor partners such as specialty pharmacy consults, advocate, navigator and care manager support, mental health/employee assistance program (EAP) resources and virtual PT.
  • Drug pipeline updates: Stay abreast of updates to the MS drug treatment pipeline and request health and pharmacy plan partners to provide notification when new therapies enter the market.
  • Update Rx utilization management programs as new treatments emerge: According to the 2024 Large Employer Health Care Strategy Survey, 67% of respondents use prior authorization and 42% use step therapy—both through the pharmacy and medical benefit—to manage the utilization of specialty medications.27 In light of a fast-evolving treatment landscape, review formulary and utilization management programs (e.g., step therapy protocols, prior authorization criteria, site-of-care management, etc.) to ensure that they align with the latest evidence-based research to drive positive health outcomes.28 Collaborate proactively with partners to set expectations and coverage protocols for MS treatments.
  • Workplace flexibility: Considering offering scheduling flexibility and workplace accommodations to encourage employees with MS to remain in the workplace. Examples of modified work arrangements specifically for people with MS include rest opportunities during work breaks, as well as allowing work to be conducted while seated.
  • Psychosocial safety: Ensure that the organizational environment provides appropriate and supportive working conditions that promote psychosocial safety.
  • Caregiver support: To support caregivers of individuals with MS, consider offering flexible work arrangements, including remote work options and adjusted hours, to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities. Also, consider tailoring mental health resources through an EAP or mental health partner to provide counseling and educational materials for caregivers.
  • Promoting awareness: To retain employees with MS, employers can ensure awareness among colleagues and supervisors about MS and its effects in the workplace by launching targeted communications campaigns. When designing communications materials, look to established resources from entities like the National MS Society.

Listed below are a selection of publicly available educational resources.

Glossary of Terms

  • Disease modifying treatments (DMTs): A group of treatments for people with MS. Most DMTs are for people with relapsing remitting MS (RRMS), but there are some that are licensed for use by people with progressive MS.29
  • Primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS): A type of MS where patients’ neurological symptoms gradually worsen, resulting in higher disability. Patients with this type of MS will not have relapses, or attacks, early in the disease course.30 This stage of the disease is the precursor to SPSMS.
  • Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS): SPMS follows the primary course of RRMS. Some diagnosed with RRMS eventually go on to have a secondary progressive course, in which neurologic function worsens over time and disability increases.31
  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS): The most common form of MS, it shows clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurologic symptoms. These attacks are also called relapses or exacerbations, followed by periods of partial or complete recovery, or remission.32

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More in Benefits Strategy


  1. What Is MS?
  2. Impact of MS on Employer-Sponsored Health Plans
  3. The Treatment Landscape for MS
  4. Recommendations for Employer Consideration
  5. Glossary of Terms